Saturday, November 9, 2013


The mating game is at the heart of more novels, more plays, more movies, more songs, and more stories than any other theme. Why is that?
It’s vital. It truly makes the world spin round, and it keeps the planet populated.
But why is relationship so very important to us? Well, we come into the world all alone. We exit this short stay on earth all alone. But most of the time we spend between birth and death is spent searching for a relationship, avoiding a relationship, being in a relationship, leaving a relationship, missing a relationship, or finding a new relationship. Love is our common obsession.
So write about this. Celebrate the joy of romance. Yes, write of bluebirds in rose gardens, canoe rides in the moonlight, first kisses and shared pleasures. But don’t forget the dark side of love: the loneliness of being without love, the sorrow of love gone bad, the conflicts that need to be resolved, or the failure to resolve them. Write of squabbles petty and huge, the wrong words spoken, jealousy, betrayal, heartbreak.
Why am I so negative? It’s because good stories need conflict to take flight. There’s no reason to write a story about a perfect relationship, if such a thing exists, because it would put your reader to sleep. A general rule: a relationship is as interesting, in terms of story, as the problems to be solved. The question asked in every successful relationship story is some form of Ladies’ Home Journal’s classic question: “Can this marriage be saved?”

My new novel, Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, is as much a love story as it is a mystery. In fact my protagonist, Hoop Johnson, the shy, stuttering, skinny bookstore clerk, has two great loves in the course of the novel. In the main story he falls head over heels for Lucinda Baylor, a fellow clerk. She’s different from him, and unlike any other woman he’s ever known. She’s hefty. She’s also a chatterbox, completely open with her feelings, whether those feelings are made of laughter or outrage. All poor Hoop knows is he’s moving fast into a relationship without a map or a guidebook. Luce likes loud music, and she’s ready to party.
Another problem is that Hoop still hasn’t gotten over Jane Gillis, the famous poet he used to be married to. As we learn in a series of back-story vignettes, Hoop and Janie fell in love in second grade, because they were so much alike: both speech-impaired, both quiet and scholarly and full of poetry. They were the perfect couple, and then she left him.
To tell any more about Hoop and his two loves would be to tell. We writers know it’s better to show. Here’s a scene showing Hooperman and Lucinda on their first “date,” dinner and more at her apartment. Note that relationship glitches are already in place. Can this “marriage” be saved?

He rang the bell. Heard the footsteps. Bit his lip.
The door opened, and there she stood, wearing a warm smile. Wearing a hippie gown, some long thing with little mirrors all over it. “You came,” she said softly. “I was worried.”
He nodded and held his gifts out to her, over the threshold, one in each hand.
“For me? Oh, Hoop! You didn’t have to do this! Wine! Roses?” Lucinda took the gifts and held them to her bosom. She shook her head and said, “Get in here, you. Let me put these in the kitchen so I can give you a huge, huge hug.”
Hoop followed her through the living room—thrift store furniture, Modigliani poster tacked up on one wall, the stereo playing Ella Fitzgerald, “Knock on Wood”—to the kitchen, where she set the flowers and the bottle on the counter. The garlicky, oniony, herby smell of simmering pasta sauce complemented the hefty, happy brown woman who walked into his arms.
“I’ve missed you, dollbaby,” she murmured.
“Me tuh,tuh,too.”
“Let’s open that wine up.” She read the label. “Petit Syrah. Cool. Here’s a corkscrew. You do the honors, while I give these posies a drink.” She handed him the bottle and the corkscrew and scrounged in a lower cupboard for a jar big enough to hold the bouquet of small roses. When the flowers and the bottle were on the kitchen table, breathing in and out, and the sauce was bubbling gently, Lucinda took Hoop’s hand and led him back to the living room, where they sat down on the lumpy couch, one at each end.
“Nice puh,puh,pup…lace.”
“I been missing you, Hooperman,” she said. “I’m going to get us a glass of wine.” She stood up and walked to the kitchen.
When she returned, bottle in hand, she placed two wine glasses on the coffee table, on straw coasters like the ones he and Janie had bought at Cost Plus.
She filled their glasses, set the bottle on the table, and sat down, closer to him this time. They clinked and sipped. The little glass mirrors on her dress winked at him.
“Nice,” she said. “You’re so sweet.”
“You were a muh,model? Are?”
“Not a fashion model, if that’s what you’re asking. I used to model for all the art departments around. Stanford, De Anza, La CaƱada, Foothill, Santa Clara, and some private groups, too. Adult ed, Jewish Community Center, and stuff. They seem to like my fat black body. Who knows why. All I know is the pay’s good, ten dollars an hour. Trouble is getting the gigs. I used to belong to the Palo Alto Model’s Guild, but I quit when I started working for the bookstore. Shoot. Maybe they’ll let me back in. Shoot. I’m doing all the talking. Am I nervous, or what? Come on, Hoop. You talk for a change.”
Hoop took another sip. “That would be a chuh,chuh,change.”
“Or we could just sit here. Hold hands? Listen to the music?”
Ella: “Yellow Man.”
They tried sitting quietly, gulping through two more glasses of wine, but Hoop began to fidget, and Lucinda’s peaceful smiles grew more and more forced. “So,” she said, as Ella moved on to the next number, “how’s things at the store? I saw that poster in the window—Jane Gillis! Coming to Palo Alto! God, Hoop, you must be stoked!”
“I geh,guess.”
“She’s your favorite poet, right? I mean, you know her personally. God.”
“Used to,” Hoop said. “While aguh,go. In cuh,cuh,college.”
 “Was she your girlfriend?”
“How much more?”
They sat in silence, until Lucinda took a deep breath and let it out. “Maybe we’d better change the subject,” she said, fingering one of the mirrors on her chest.
She refilled their glasses, finishing the bottle. “Come to think of it,” she said, “I’m starting to get hungry. How about you? You want to come toss the salad while I cook the pasta? And I got garlic bread in the oven. How’s that sound?” She rose to her feet.
“Wonderful!” He stood up.
“I didn’t make you a dessert. I don’t know how.”
Hooperman took the big woman in his arms and whispered to her ear, “You’ll buh,be all the dessert I want.”
She squeezed back, and in a little, little voice, she said, “I love you, Hoop.” She cleared her throat and quickly added, “I mean, I’ve missed you so. You know?”
Ella sang: “I’ll never fall in love again.…”
Dinner was delicious and nearly silent. He asked her questions like, “Oregano?”
She answered, “Mmm.”
They drank the last of their Petit Syrah, and Luce got up and hauled a jug of Red Mountain out of the fridge and filled their glasses. They slurped linguini and crunched lettuce.
The music stopped. Lucinda stood up and said, “I’ll put something on. What do you like? You like Aretha?”
“Guh,got anything sss…hofter?”
“Whiter, you mean?”
“No. I di,di,didn’t mean that. Not at all.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Just kidding. Bad joke. Hoop, forgive me. I’m nervous. How about Brubeck?”
“You have Buh,Brubeck?”
“You sound surprised.”
“Which album?”
“I don’t know the name of it, actually. Somebody left it here. I mean—”
“It’s okay, Luce. Sss…hit down. We don’t need any music. Guh,great spagheh,ghetti!”
“Same thing, actually. Honest to God, why did I do that? Correct you? Jeeze. Sorry Hoop. I’m sort of weird tonight. Hoop?”
“It’s none of my business, but that poet? Jane Gillis?”
He gritted his teeth. “Mmm?”
“Were you lovers?”
“It was a long tuh,time ago, Luce.”
“Were you married? You were, weren’t you?”
He didn’t answer.
“You still have any feelings?”
She paused a moment. “That’s another word for love,” she told him. “And now you’re going to get to see her again. How will that be? Huh?”
Hoop stood up. “I’m sss…horry,” he said again. “I’m afuh,fraid I’m.… I.…” He ran out of things to say. “I think I’d better guh,go.”
“You mean that’s it? It?
“Why are you so damned angry? Jesus.”
Angry? Maybe. No, hurt. No, embarrassed. No, just damned eager to get out of this apartment with a woman he liked so much he couldn’t stand being with her another minute. “I gotta run.”
She nodded and put a hand on his shoulder. “Run, then, sugar,” she said. Her smile had turned south. “And if you ever think of running back this way, call me first, okay? To be sure I’m not seeing somebody else by then? Somebody real famous maybe?”
Hoop turned away. Just before he reached her front door, he heard her say, “Hoop?”
He stopped.
He heard her say: “One more thing.”
He turned. She approached him until she stood a slap away. But it wasn’t a slap. She walked even closer and kissed his bearded chin. “Dollbaby,” she said. “Thank you for my roses.”


Note: More information about Hooperman: a Bookstore Mystery can be found at:


  1. John,
    I've always suspected that you were a romantic. :) And, I totally agree that, if there were such a thing as a "perfect" relationship, it would make for boring reading. Ah, but wouldn't that be nice in life?

    1. I agree, Pat, and I'm happy to say I hit the jackpot in the relationship department, thirty years ago.

  2. Just lovely, John. The comments about relationships, in life and in our writing -- and the excerpt from Hooperman. Thanks so much.